Sgt. Camilo Mejía checked his M16. It was ready for action. He also had 210 rounds of ammunition and about six grenades. He adjusted his Kevlar helmet and flak vest, which was draped over his desert uniform, and took a swig from his canteen. The water burned his tongue. Still gripping his rifle, he stretched out his legs and closed his eyes.
Then suddenly he awoke to the sound of three consecutive explosions. About a half-mile away, a crowd of protesters shouted "No Bush! Yes Saddam!" A fourth blast shook the building and jolted him to his feet. Some Iraqi dissenters were lobbing grenades at the government center. Camilo and his eight-man squad all members of Charlie Company of the Florida National Guard's First Battalion, 124th Regiment rushed up the stairs to the building's rooftop. An army sniper joined them.
On the ground below the Floridians, outside the entrance, Camilo watched a bomb inside a black bag explode. Several U.S. soldiers scattered.
Soon a boy no older than 17 emerged from the crowd. Following protocol, Camilo trained his M16 scope on the slender kid with the straight black hair and dark skin. Then the boy, who was wearing gray slacks and a long-sleeved shirt, pulled a small black object from his pocket with his right hand. He cocked his arm. A barrage of automatic rifle fire slammed the teenager to the pavement. The grenade exploded harmlessly near his dead body.
Four years later, Camilo still agonizes over the moment. "I don't remember squeezing the trigger," he says. "But when I took out my magazine, I only had 19 bullets left, which meant I shot off 11 rounds. Did I hit him with a kill shot? I don't know, because we all shot at him. It's a tough call, man."
By the time of the young man's death, Camilo had served eight years in the military, three in the regular Army and five in the National Guard. He had fired his M16 hundreds of times. But the death profoundly affected him. "I didn't really reflect on it then because I was more concerned with surviving the next mission," Camilo continues. "But when I came home during leave and I saw my daughter for the first time since being deployed, I began thinking about what I was doing in Iraq. How could I be a good father if I didn't stand up for my moral beliefs? Nothing could convince me that there was a reason for being in Iraq."
Not only did the teenager's death haunt him but so did those of the ten Iraqis he and his men shot in the ensuing months. They were all civilians who were caught in crossfire. And then there were their weeping children. "You see these innocent people get killed and you tell yourself it's justified," he says. "I just came to the point where I didn't want to be an instrument of death anymore."
On March 15, 2004, five months after he went AWOL during a two-week home leave, Camilo became the first soldier to publicly denounce the war. He declared himself a conscientious objector and surrendered to the military. Two months later, he was found guilty of desertion and sentenced to one year in the brig. He was busted to private, stripped of all his Army benefits, and given a bad-conduct discharge, which he is currently appealing.
At first, he was a media darling. Journalists from Singapore to Minneapolis to Paris covered his story. Two weeks after he turned himself in, 60 Minutes aired a Dan Rather interview with the South Floridian while he was still in hiding. Peace activist groups such as Amnesty International and Code Pink made him out to be a hero.
Today, he has stepped out of the limelight, except for the occasional antiwar rally or television interview. He spends most of his time attending psychology classes at the University of Miami and bonding with his 6-year-old daughter. He awaits the publishing of his new book, follows the daily debate in Washington over Iraq policy, and rues the death toll, which has now reached close to 70,000.
But to the soldiers of his brigade and many veterans, he remains controversial. Where some praise him for taking a stand against an unjust war that's built on deceit, others call him a traitor and coward. "We're talking about a convicted deserter during time of war," asserts Tad Warfel, now a major and assistant operations officer in the Florida Army Reserve. "Nowhere in history are there any cowards listed as heroes."